While the Brooklyn Nets have sputtered to an 0-5 start, perhaps the most encouraging competitor is rookie forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The 6’7″ swingman from Arizona has supplied rangy defense and sharp awareness on both ends of the floor during his first few NBA games.
The only problem? He’s not getting enough playing time to truly help the Nets.
Hollis-Jefferson saw 20-plus minutes in his first two games, but averaged just 9.3 minutes per night over the next three contests. During Brooklyn’s 101-87 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday, Lionel Hollins limited the rookie to 11 minutes despite his positive effect.
It’s understandable that Hollins wants to play veterans that he trusts to win games, but this Nets squad could desperately use more young juice on the defensive side.
Most importantly, the team has actually played better when Hollis-Jefferson is on the floor. He’s slowed down wing slashers, jumped into passing lanes and kept the offense flowing. Consequently, he’s the only Net with a positive plus/minus rating (plus-4.0) right now.
Jefferson also has the second-best defensive rating (105) and defensive box plus/minus (1.2). He owns a combination of length, foot speed and instincts that no one else on the team can offer.
Let’s take a peek at some examples of his impressive defensive talent. First he showed great lateral containment and discipline against San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. He slid, didn’t bite on pump fakes and forced a traveling violation on Leonard:
It seems like a simple play, but those fundamentals and length are traits that few of his teammates can replicate:
It’s crazy how good Hollis-Jefferson is already at staying in front of his man defensively.
— devin kharpertian (@uuords) November 3, 2015
In the next sequence, he encountered a different type of attacker in Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, who’s one of the quickest playmakers in the Association. Watch how Hollis-Jefferson got into his stance, challenged Teague and recovered when Teague got a step on him via hesitation:
Lastly, Hollis-Jefferson has showcased superb defensive playmaking. Here he demonstrated terrific timing and proves why he’s averaging 2.3 steals per 36 minutes:
The Nets are 27th in the NBA in defensive rating (111.7), and opponents are shooting 49 percent against them. It’s reasonable to believe that increasing Hollis-Jefferson’s playing time would improve both of those numbers. After all, the rookie’s defensive field goal percentage is 39.4; foes are shooting 5.5 percent worse against him than the rest of the league (44.9 percent).
Hollis-Jefferson has shown promise on the offensive end as well, even though he’s still a raw creator and shooter.
Although he isn’t one of Brooklyn’s featured scoring weapons, he’s made well-timed cuts, attacked creases when the opportunity arises and hit the occasional mid-range jumper.
As Anthony Puccio of NetsDaily.com notes, Hollis-Jefferson is already connecting well with his teammates:
Gotta love the chemistry between Lopez & Hollis-Jefferson. Big fella with 3 assists already
— Anthony Puccio (@APOOCH) October 31, 2015
Due to his irregular playing time, Hollis-Jefferson’s involvement and scoring chances have been sparse. But during his 26-minute stint against the Spurs, he chipped in 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
He did a nice job of finding the soft spots in the defense, serving as a perfectly timed recipient and explosive finisher. Hollis-Jefferson strongly favors left-hand finishes, but he executed a smooth right-hand drive and layup when San Antonio failed to rotate:
If you’re still not convinced Hollins need to give him more burn, consider the following lineup results.
Hollis-Jefferson is in four of the Nets’ top five plus/minus five-man lineups, and he’s also in the top seven two-man combos. When it comes to net offensive/defensive ratings, he also proves to be one of Brooklyn’s most impactful performers. He’s in four of its top five five-man lineups when it comes to net rating (minimum three minutes together) and each of the top seven two-man net rating lineups (minimum three minutes together).
Mike Mazzeo of ESPN.com explained that while this doesn’t mean Hollis-Jefferson is Brooklyn’s most dangerous talent, he’s been a key component of its most successful stretches thus far:
…In RHJ’s 79 minutes this season, the Nets are outscoring opponents by an average of 15.8 points per 100 possessions. This is not to suggest that Hollis-Jefferson should become the team’s focal point, but his impact is clearly being felt, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be playing more than the 15 minutes he has logged over the past two games combined.
It’s only natural for a coach to be hesitant about playing a raw rookie early in the season, especially when that newcomer isn’t a lethal perimeter shooter (which is something Brooklyn needs).
But both the eye test and the stat sheet have illustrated that the Nets play better when Hollis-Jefferson is involved. He’s not just a bright spot for their future, but rather an important asset for the present.